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Vol. 4, No. 2

Fair Warning
by Robert Olen Butler

~

The auction business is built on the three Ds: debt, divorce, and death. The next morning Arthur Gray sat me down in his office with WQXR playing low in the background--some simpering generic baroque thing was going on--and he fluttered his eyebrows at me over the quarter of a million I'd gotten for the worst Renoir oil he'd ever seen and then he sent me off to an estate evaluation on Central Park West. The death of a reclusive woman who apparently had had an eye for Victoriana. Her only son would meet me.
    The doorman had my name and I went up in an elevator that smelled faintly of Obsession and I rang the bell at the woman's apartment. And when the door swung open I found myself standing before Dark-Eyes.
    I'm sure I let the creature beneath the auctioneer show her face in that moment: the little half smile that came over Dark-Eyes told me so. The smile was faintly patronizing, even. But I forgave him that. I was, after all, making myself a gawking fool at the moment. The smile also suggested, I realized, that he had requested me specifically for this evaluation. I focused on that thought, even as I put on my professional demeanor.
    "I'm Amy Dickerson," I said. "Of Nichols and Gray."
    He bowed faintly and he repeated my name. "Ms. Dickerson." He was a little older than I thought, from close up, and even handsomer. His cheekbones were high and his eyes were darker than I'd been able to see from the podium. "I'm Trevor Martin. Mrs. Edward Martin's son."
    "I'm glad," I said, and to myself I said, What the hell does that mean? "To meet you," I added, though I fooled neither of us. I was glad he was here and I was here. The only thing I wasn't glad about was that his name was Trevor. It was a name made for a rainy climate, and spats.
    "Come in," he said, and I did and I nearly staggered from the Victorian profusion of the place. The foyer was stuffed full: an umbrella stand and a grandfather clock and a stand-up coatrack and a dozen dark-framed hunting scenes and a gilt-wood-and-gesso mirror and a Gothic-style cupboard and a papier-mâché prie-dieu with shell-inlaid cherubs and a top rail of red velvet, and Trevor--I had to think of him as that now, at least till I could call him Dark-Eyes to his face--Trevor was moving ahead of me and I followed him into Mrs. Edward Martin's parlor--and my eyes could not hold still, there was such a welter of things, and I went from fainting bench to pump organ to the William Morris Strawberry Thief wallpaper--the walls were aswirl with vines and flowers and strawberries and speckled birds.
    "I don't know where the smell of lilacs is coming from," he said.
    I looked at him, not prepared for that cognitive leap. I looked back to a mantelpiece filled with parian porcelains of Shakespeare, General Gordon, Julius Caesar, Victoria herself threatening to fall from the edge where she'd been jostled by the crowd of other white busts.
    "It's always in my clothes after I visit here."
    "What's that?" I said, trying to gain control of my senses.
    "The lilac. I never asked her where it came from, but now when I'm free to look, I can't find it."
    "You must miss her," I said.
    "Is that what I'm conveying?" His voice had gone flat.
    I didn't even know myself why I'd jumped to that conclusion, much less expressed it. Maybe it was all her stuff around me. See me, love me, miss me, she was crying, I am so intricate and so ornamented that you can't help but do that. But Trevor clearly had seen her, and whether or not he'd loved her, I don't think he missed her much. Evidently he heard his own tone, because he smiled at me and he made his voice go so soft from what seemed like self-reflection that my hands grew itchy to touch him. "That must sound like an odd response," he said. "How could an only child not miss his mother?"
    "I can think of ways."
    He smiled again but this time at the room. He looked around. "Do you wonder if I grew up amidst all this?"
    "Yes."
    "I did."
    "And you want to get rid of it."
    His smile came back to me. He looked at me closely and he was no Trevor at all. "Every bit of it," he said.

 

~

That first day I sat at a bentwood table in the kitchen and he would bring me the things he could carry--a sterling silver biscuit box and a cut-glass decanter, a coach-lace coffee cozy and a silver-and-gold peacock pendant, and on and on--and I would make notes for the catalog description and I would give him an estimate and he never challenged a figure, never asked a question. At some point I realized it was past two and we ordered in Chinese and he had already rolled the sleeves on his pale green silk shirt and we ate together, me using chopsticks, him using a fork. In the center of the table sat a spring-driven tabletop horse-racing toy with eight painted lead horses with jockeys that circled a grooved wooden track. He had just put it before me when the doorbell rang with the food.
    We ate in silence for a couple of minutes, a nice silence, I thought--we were comfortable enough with each other already that we didn't have to make small talk. Finally, though, I pointed to the toy and asked, "Was this yours?"
    "Not really. It was around. I never played with it."
    "Weren't you allowed?"
    "How much will we get?" he said.
    "Toys aren't a specialty of mine. I can only get you into the ballpark."
    "Close enough."
    "I think the estimate would be around three hundred dollars."
    "And you'd work the bid up to six."
    I looked at the row of jockeys. "We've got a couple of regulars who play the horses. And more than a couple are still kids at heart."
    "You're scary sometimes, Amy Dickerson, what you can pick up in people." He was smiling the same smile I'd taken for self-reflection.
    "This might be true," I said. I was up to my elbows here in mothers and children and my own mother thought the same thing about me, expecting all the good men in the world to be frightened away. Looking into Trevor's dark eyes I felt a twist of something in my chest that the cool and collected part of me recognized as panic.
    "I mean that in an admiring way," he said.
    "How come I didn't pick up on that?"
    "I'm sorry. I scare people, too."
    "But you don't scare me. See the problem I'm suddenly faced with? We have an imbalance here."
    "In the courtroom," he said.
    "You're a lawyer?"
    "Yes."
    "That is scary," I said, and part of me meant it.
    "I only defend the poor and the downtrodden," he said.
    "Not if you can afford silk shirts."
    "That was two categories. I defend the poor and the downtrodden rich."
    "Is there such a thing?"
    "Ask any rich man. He'll tell you."
    "What about rich women?"
    The playfulness drained out of him, pulling the corners of his mouth down. I knew he was thinking about his mother again.
    "Trevor," I said, softly. He looked me in the eyes and I said, "Play the game."
    For a moment he didn't understand.
    I nodded to the spring-driven tabletop horse-racing toy with eight hollow-cast, painted lead horses with jockeys and grooved wooden track, estimate three hundred dollars. He followed my gesture and looked at the object for a moment. Then he stretched and pulled it to him and he put his hand on the key at the side. He hesitated and looked at me. Ever so slightly I nodded, yes.
    He turned the key and the kitchen filled with the metallic scrinch of the gears and he turned it again and again until it would turn no more. Then he tripped the release lever and the horses set out jerking around the track once, twice, a horse taking the lead and then losing it to another and that one losing it to another until the sound ceased and the horses stopped. Trevor's eyes had never left the game. Now he looked at me.
    "Which one was yours?" I asked.
    He reached out his hand and laid it over mine. Our first touch. "They all were," he said.

 

~

There was a time when I thought I would be a model. I was a model. I did the catwalk glide as well as any of them, selling the clothes, selling the attitude. And off the job--when I was in my own jeans and going, Who the hell was I today?--I had trouble figuring out how to put one foot in front of the other one without feeling like I was still on the runway. There was a time when I was an actress. I was Miss Firecracker and I was Marilyn Monroe and I was passionate about a shampoo and I was still going, Who the hell was I today? There were the two times when I lived with a man for a few years. It didn't help ease Mama's angst. People actually think to get married, in Texas, she'd observe. It didn't help ease my angst either. I was "Babe" to one and "A.D." to the other and one never made a sound when we had sex and the other yelled, "Oh Mama," over and over, and I found part of myself sitting somewhere on the other side of the room watching all this and turning over the same basic question.
    So what was I reading in Trevor Martin, the once and perhaps future Dark-Eyes, that would make me hopeful? After he put his hand on mine he said, "I've been divorced for six months. My mother has been dead for six weeks. It feels good to have a woman look inside me. That's not really happened before. But I'm trying to move slowly into the rest of my life."
    "I understand," I said, and I did. "For one thing, we have every object of your childhood to go through first."
    He squeezed my hand gently, which told me he'd known I'd understand and he was grateful.

 

~

I left him on the first evening and went to a Thai restaurant and ate alone, as had been my recent custom, though I felt the possibilities with Dark-Eyes unfurling before me. But that didn't stop me from eating too fast and I walked out with my brow sweating and my lips tingling from the peppers.
    And when I was done, I went to my apartment and I stepped in and when I switched on the lights I was stopped cold. My eyes leaped from overstuffed chair to overstuffed couch to silk Persian rug and all of it was in Bloomingdale's earth tones and it was me, it was what was left of me after I'd been dead for six weeks and somebody that wasn't me but was like me was here to catalog it all and there was a ficus in a corner and a Dali print of Don Quixote over the empty mantelpiece and a wall of bookshelves and I wanted to turn around and walk out, go to a bar or back to work, take my notes from the first day at Mrs. Edward Martin's and go put them in a computer, anything but step further into this apartment with its silence buzzing in my ears.
    Then I saw the red light flashing on my answering machine and I moved into my apartment as if nothing odd was going on. I approached the phone, which sat, I was suddenly acutely aware, on an Angelo Donghia maple side table with Deco-style tapering legs, estimated value four hundred dollars. But the flashing light finally cleared my head: I had one message and I pushed the button.
    It was Arthur Gray. "Hello, Amy," he said. "About the benefit auction. Woody Allen just came through with a walk-on part in his new film. Postmodern Millie, I think it is. And Giuliani's offered a dinner at Gracie Mansion. But I've had a special request, and since we're not being entirely altruistic here--rightly not--I really think we should do it. More later. You know how I appreciate you. Our best customers are your biggest admirers ... Almost forgot. Do you need a lift to the Hamptons Saturday? We should get out there early and I've got a limo. Let me know. Bye."
    All of which barely registered at the time. I realized it was the assumption that the red light was Trevor that had cleared the mortality from my head.

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